Monday, June 14, 2021

The Optimist Club

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

On the evening of June 22, 1972, the Elmira Pioneers were supposed to play Three Rivers at Dunn Field. Hurricane Agnes had other plans. She rained out the game and then flooded out the stadium. By the time her floodwaters receded, Dunn Field was a mess and the Elmira Pioneers were homeless. The last time that had happened in 1946, it was well over a month before the Pioneers were able to play there again. This time, though, they made it home in record time thanks to the help of five special women.

1972 had already been a bit of a rough year for the Pioneers. Years of falling attendance had lead the Kansas City Royals to drop them as a farm team. The new owners set the ambitious goal of 100,000 fans in attendance for the season, painting “100,000 or bust” on the back fence. Agnes’s floodwaters washed away portions of the fences in left and right field leaving only “000 or bust” behind. In the aftermath, eight inches of silt covered the field and mud coated much of the stadium seating. The concession stand was filled with mud and rotted food and the clubhouse wasn’t much better.  Much of the team’s equipment was ruined too. Some 60 dozen balls were lost, along with all the team’s gloves and most of the bats. On the plus side, team manager Len Johnson and his wife Alice were able to salvage and wash the team’s uniforms. They also temporarily housed players Carl Richardson, Dennis Queen, and Harry Shaughnessy whose homes had been destroyed by the flood.

Surveying the damage, team owners Kip Horsburgh and Carl Fazio didn’t have much hope in getting back into Dunn Field before August. They hadn’t counted on Alice Johnson and her friends. As the team played away game after away game, Alice Johnson, Jan Kern, Vicki Detter, Cathy Eldridge, and Marianne Relic did everything they could to bring the team home. Johnson, Kern, Detter, and Eldridge all had husbands on the team and they wanted them back. Marianne Relic worked as a secretary for Horsburgh and Fazio, but was no less determined. The team owners dubbed them The Optimist Club. Together, the five of them hosed down the seating, scrubbed bathrooms, and cleaned just about everything. They had help from the Elmira Parks Department, which worked on clearing and replanting the field, and some prisoners from the Elmira Correctional Facility, who helped with some of the heavy lifting.  In an interview, Alice Johnson claimed that her babysitter had put in 160 hours of work minding her kids while she and the other ladies cleaned. 

The Optimists at work, courtesy of the Elmira Star-Gazette

 All their hard work paid off. On July 18, the Elmira Pioneers returned to Dunn Field for their first home game in weeks. They played a double header against the Reading Phillies before a crowd of 1,177 fans. It was the highest turn out of the season thus far. They won the first game and lost the second. In between the two, the team honored the Optimist Club with special jackets and a round of applause. 

Detter, Relic, Eldridge, & Johnson, courtesy of the Elmira Star-Gazette


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